1706378332 The advance of lithium mining threatens Andean flamenco in Argentina

The advance of lithium mining threatens Andean flamenco in Argentina

EL PAÍS openly offers the América Futura section for its daily and global information contribution to sustainable development. If you would like to support our journalism, subscribe here.

He has an elegant gait, with a grace that hypnotizes. The plumage is impressive: it combines pink with whitish and black. It can be more than a meter high. The Andean flamingo – its scientific name is phoenicoparrus andinus – nests in summer colonies in the shallow wetlands of the Puna and the high Andes of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. The area known as the “Lithium Triangle.”

In Argentina, the rarest of all flamingo species is found in the warmer months mainly in the northern provinces (Salta, Catamarca and Jujuy) and also in the lower inland areas, mainly Córdoba and Santa Fe. According to the Mining Secretariat, there are 38 lithium projects in the country, 17 of them in the large salt lakes of the Salta province.

For several years, biologists and conservation experts have been warning about the negative effects of lithium brine exploitation in the places where these animals reproduce and feed. This bird species from the flamingo family – in Argentina there are also specimens of the southern flamingo and the Jacobean flamingo – has been classified as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Drying pits at a lithium mining project in Catamarca, Argentina, in 2021.Drying pits at a lithium mining project in Catamarca, Argentina, in 2021. Anita Pouchard Serra (Bloomberg)

Enrique Derlindati, Doctor of Biological Sciences, researcher and teacher at the Faculty of Sciences of the National University of Salta, has been studying these birds, their population trends and the threats they face in their environment for years. And it points to the need to take measures to preserve their survival and ability to reproduce.

“In summer, these species move into the mountain ranges – especially wetlands and salt flats – above 4,000 meters altitude. There they establish their nesting colonies, which are becoming increasingly difficult to find and coincide with the so-called lithium triangle. The Andean flamingo is a species restricted to the Andes with the smallest population size. Censuses estimate that there are approximately 80,000 individuals throughout South America. Due to the presence of lithium exploration and mining fields, they no longer use historical nesting sites,” says Derlindati, who has been studying flamingos since the 1990s.

These figures come from the sixth simultaneous international census of three species of flamingos in the Southern Cone, conducted by the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) together with other socio-ecological research and conservation institutions. “It is a follow-up examination and monitoring that is carried out on the population every five years. Over the last 15 years we have started to observe fewer young animals in natural environments. This is a big alarm. Mining companies are founded in all the salt pans of the Puna. They don't leave anyone behind without intervening. “This limits nesting opportunities as Andean flamingos seek isolated locations,” adds the specialist.

Derlindati believes that mining activities in Argentina could be carried out with less impact on the environment and with respect for the fauna of the places. “I had the opportunity to be in Chile. There, for example, the miners do not carry out their duties during the species' breeding season, between November and February. But if the mining companies don't want to stop and the governments don't want to stop, it's difficult to do so. There are also other ways to obtain lithium. Dry pools are used here because it is the most economical; This requires a transformation of the salt desert system. “The direct impact of the activity is very large,” he assures.

The leg of an Andean flamingo next to a researcher's foot.The leg of an Andean flamingo next to a researcher's foot. Enrique Derlindati

Matías Michelutti is a tourist guide in Ansenuza National Park (Córdoba), which is home to the largest salt lake in South America and 66% of all species of migratory and wading birds recorded in Argentina, including the Andean flamingos that choose the area in winter. He knows the place like the back of his hand: His father was a park ranger and his family navigated the waters for more than 40 years.

“The big problem is water. The maintenance of the sites and the provision of food depend on the environmental conditions and the water levels of the mirrors. During these drought years – from 2019 to December last year – the lagoon shrank to historic levels only seen in the 1970s. The number of individuals of the southern flamingo is stable and not endangered. But the Andes use the same places for nesting and feeding that currently produce lithium or that are favorable for this activity. The issue is important; “It's not about extracting lithium, but about using water for this process,” says Michelutti, who, like Derlindati, is part of the High Andean Flamenco Conservation Group (GCFA), which includes scientists and specialists in nature conservation and protected areas Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru.

Ansenuza National Park received this category as a protected area in 2022. Michelutti highlights this legal framework for nature conservation after carrying out years of research and dissemination work to publicize the vast wetland of about 8,000 square kilometers in central northern Argentina. “It was a long journey and a milestone to become a national park. There is a global trend towards drying out of these environments. Through tourism, we want the general public to know the importance of these wetlands,” he emphasizes.

Protective measures and stricter regulations to curb environmentally harmful activities are being discussed. In Argentina there is Law 24,585 on the Environmental Protection of Mining Activities, which provides a “legal framework for protection”; However, the approval or denial of permits to carry out mining projects depends on the respective province, which has power over its resources under Article 124 of the state constitution. “The provinces have the original domain of the natural resources present on their territory,” the text says.

Derlindati warns that the environmental impact is exacerbated by a lack of data from mining companies and lax – or inadequate – controls by governments in these provinces. “In many cases, mining companies do not provide data because the government does not require it. The economic situation leads them to liquidate natural assets, following a false panacea for lithium fever. In Salta, for example, the provincial legislature is trying to cut bureaucracy to facilitate mining exploitation. This makes them lax when it comes to permits and restrictions. “The costs are ultimately always environmental and have an impact on people’s health,” he analyzes.

“The environmental impact study has been completed: it covers air, soil, land and social aspects. What environmentalists say are opinions and not strict data from an official body,” replies Simón Pérez Alsina, president of the Chamber of Mines of Salta, the province with the largest number of lithium projects in the country.

A flamingo colony in a salt desert in the Andes.A flamingo colony in a salt desert in the Andes. Ossian Lindholm

The official says that Argentina's Puna is an area “of millions of hectares”, with large areas for productive ventures and the protection of flora and fauna. “Every human activity has an impact. It is a rule that knows who built a house, for example. Technically, there are no proven negative impacts from a lithium project. Neither pollution nor lack of water nor loss of species. Lithium is the mineral of the energy transition. Without lithium we will not decarbonize the world.”

The study “Technical Evidence of the Negative Impact of Lithium Exploitation on the Wetlands and Water Resources of the Salt Flats of the High Andean Puna” published in 2021 by the Humedales Foundation with the support of the NGO Wetlands International warns of documented and identified impacts. such as salinization of soils and wetlands, contamination of soils with hazardous wastes, alteration of natural surface water flow, alteration of water balance and impacts on native flora and fauna.

The vast salt flats in northern Argentina are not just the “white gold” of lithium. They find themselves in a fragile environment where, according to the above study and the opinion of other experts, there is still no effective environmental monitoring network to quantify impacts. The challenge is to assess the feasibility of developing environmentally sustainable projects that benefit the national energy matrix. Without taking these elements into account, the great desert landscapes and their waters will be irrevocably altered. The problem is exacerbated by the arrival of a president like Javier Milei, who denies climate change. Derlindati sums it up in one sentence: “The Puna is a complex and fragile system. When we start breaking links and publishing elements to the environment, everything starts to go wrong. And it is difficult to predict future outcomes.”